Headline Sports Business

How To Succeed As A Sports Agent In 10 Steps

Last week, I wrapped up my second year of teaching Sport Agency Management at Indiana University Bloomington.  It has been a true blessing to have been given the opportunity to teach driven, intelligent students, which is something I hope to continue doing for the rest of my life.  

The Sport Agency Management course is intended to provide students with a greater understanding of the current issues and laws related to the sport agent profession and focuses primarily on the legal and practical way to act in the capacity of a sport agent and/or operate a sport agency.  In particular, the focus of the course is on NCAA, state, and federal rules and regulations, players’ association regulations, collective bargaining agreements, client services, and various duties involved in the representation of athletes.

My Fall 2012 students’ term papers required them to solicit practicing sports agents who had not formerly been interviewed for an article on Sports Agent Blog.  Students were told to interview their chosen subjects and provide a write-up based on their discussions.  With permission from the interviewee and the student, I will be publishing some of the results that were submitted to me for review (and grading).  The first is a submission from Bobby Ingram, who interviewed Rick Smith of Priority Sports and provided his “How To Succeed As A Sports Agent in 10 Steps.”

1.      Earn a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree is a requisite for most professions, including becoming a certified MLBPA, NBPA, NFLPA, or NHLPA agent. There’s not one specific major that will guarantee your success as an agent, but the most popular majors for prospective agents are Sports Marketing and Management, Business, and Finance, as they offer courses most pertinent to the sports agency profession. Students in these majors will take classes in marketing, economics, business and sports law, ethics, and management. Those courses will enhance your abilities as an agent and businessperson. It’s also very important to take communications, public speaking, and writing courses. Sports agents need to know how to effectively communicate with their clients, prospective clients, and the teams they are negotiating with. Strong communication is important because signing clients ultimately requires you to go into athletes’ living rooms and convince them to sign with you.

 2.      Throw out your copies of Jerry McGuire and Entourage.  Being a sports agent is nothing like the movie or TV show, and the sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be. If you’re going to be a successful agent, you must understand that the reality of the profession is much less glamorous and lucrative than the movie and show portray. As Rick Smith, President of Priority Sports and Entertainment, puts it “People that eat food think they can run a restaurant. And there are many sports fans that say, ‘If I can’t get a job with a team, I’ll just be an agent.’ It’s just much harder than that.”

3.      Get an internship experience. The largest sports agents either own their own agencies, or are part of a sports management firm, such as Priority Sports, IMG, CAA, Octagon, and others. But getting an entry-level position straight out of college at one of these elite agencies is difficult, If not impossible, without having relevant experience beforehand. In fact, IMG, an international sports, fashion, and media representation agency, reported that it wouldn’t even hire agents externally. If you want to get a job at IMG, you must work your way up through the ranks. Getting an internship or two at an agency while in college will drastically help increase your chance of success in the industry. One of the first things Rick Smith will say to a prospective agent is: “If you’re a sports fan, get in line with the other 250 million people in this country. What sets you apart?  You need to bring something to the table that is a unique skill that the agency needs. It’s all about bringing something to the table that gives the agency to think you’ll help them down the road.

4.      Earn a law degree or find a job that will support you. Some player associations, such as the NFLPA, require agents to have a post-graduate degree, such as a MBA or a JD. The only alternative is to have at least six years of relevant work experience. But getting a law degree might be the best direction to take because law school teaches strong analytical and reading skills. A law degree can also be very helpful when negotiating contracts, although modern CBAs make negotiating contracts easier for non-lawyers. And if you’re like Rick Smith, it might even turn into a full-fledged career as a sports agent. Smith graduated from law school at Northwestern in 1986, and began a career as a practicing attorney. He had been doing legal work for his high school friend, Mark Bartelstein, who was a self-employed agent at the time, when Mark decided to expand his practice. Rick Smith left his job as an attorney and started up with Bartelstein at Priority Sports. But the best reason to get a JD if you’re a prospective sports agent is to supplement your (lack of) income as an agent. A survey of sports agents conducted by ESPN, revealed that less than 5 percent of all registered agents net more than $100,000 a year. Many sports agents will find themselves working a full-time job outside of the sports industry. As Rick Smith says, “A law degree is a nice fallback plan if you fail in the industry.

5.      Network, network, network!  You won’t succeed as a sports agent without developing lasting relationships and connections with people inside the sports industry. Exercising your network can help lead to signing clients, landing a position at an agency, or even getting your player drafted or signed to a team. An internship experience in college (see step 3) will help begin your network. But it doesn’t end there. A good sports agent is always expanding his or her personal and professional network. If you’re from a university with strong athletics, try to build relationships with some of the athletes and personnel. People do business with people they know and like.

6.      Become licensed and registered in your state.  In many states such as Georgia, New York and Florida, agents who represent athletes are required to become licensed or registered. There is not a formal board that governs this process across the country, so the various requirements can vary by state. Generally, prospective agents will only need to submit to a background check, along with an application and any applicable fees. Make sure you’re licensed and registered in your state before you apply for certification.

7.      Get certified with the Players Association(s) of your choice. “You don’t need to take a course. Pay a fee and pass a test and you can call yourself an agent,” said Rick Smith. The four major players associations each require an application as well as paying fees. The requirements of each association though vary slightly, so it’s important that you familiarize yourself with the requirements for the sport(s) you wish to represent players in. Once certified, you’ll be included on the list of certified agents for that sport, enabling you to sign clients. Note: MLBPA requires a player to designate you as his agent before becoming certified.

8.      Sign your first client. This might be the most important step. A sports agent without any clients is just a person with a cool job title. There are over a thousand agent certified with the NFLPA, over half of which don’t have any clients at all. Signing your first client is crucial to your success. Make sure s/he is a high character athlete, too. Overlooking character issues can be an agent’s fatal mistake. According to Smith at Priority Sports, “We don’t represent low-character kids. We tap resources. We talk to teammates. If we represent other guys at that school, they’ve been in the locker room; they know what’s going on, so we talk to them. We talk to NFL scouts as well.”

9.      Use your client list to your advantage. Signing the first client is the hardest part. Once you’ve done that, if you’re delivering on what you’ve promised to your client, gaining more clients should be no problem. Smith claims, “A client list can usually sell itself.” If you can show a client that other players have benefited from your work, and that they remain satisfied with you, chances are you’ll be able to sign that client.

10.     Take great care of your clients. This step goes hand-in-hand with the previous step. Happy clients aren’t former clients. In most situations, if you deliver on your promises to your client, uphold and fulfill your duties to the best of your abilities, and do your due diligence when signing the client, there are few problems that can’t be fixed. Rick Smith believes that “Having a good relationship with players so if there is a problem they talk to you about it. Most of the time the issue is that they are oversold and under delivered. Usually there’s a fix to the problem.” If your clients are happy, chances are they’ll help sell you to their teammates and other players. As long as you’re signing and keeping clients, maintaining your place as a sports agent in the industry should be no problem.

By Darren Heitner

Darren Heitner created Sports Agent Blog as a New Year's Resolution on December 31, 2005. Originally titled, "I Want To Be A Sports Agent," the website was founded with the intention of causing Heitner to learn more about the profession that he wanted to join, meet reputable individuals in the space and force himself to stay on top of the latest news and trends.

Heitner now runs Heitner Legal, P.L.L.C., which is a law firm with many practice areas, including sports law and contract law. Heitner has represented numerous athletes and sports agents as legal counsel. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Bloomington from 2011-2014, where he created and taught a course titled, Sport Agency Management, which included subjects ranging from NCAA regulations to athlete agent certification and the rules governing the profession. Heitner serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where he teaches a Sports Law class that includes case law surrounding athlete agents and the NCAA rules.